Bearing the support of Delaware County’s two state legislators, hearings for a bill to cut public employees’ collective bargaining rights began this week before the Ohio House of Representatives.
Republican supporters of the bill say it is needed to fix a system balanced in the favor of public unions amidst a $8 billion state budget deficit.
The bill would dramatically reduce the bargaining power of public unions, making it illegal for public employees to go on strike, eliminating automatic raises for workers based on seniority and give governments the final say in negotiations, ending the practice of binding third-party arbitration currently used to settle police and firefighter contract disputes, among others terms.
State Sen. Kris Jordan (R-Powell) was among those that voted for Senate Bill, which cleared the senate last week by the narrowest possible margin, 17-16. Six Republicans joined senate Democrats in voting against the bill, saying it went too far.
Contrary to the highly-visible opposition to the bill from public employees, Jordan said he thinks a “silent majority” of Ohioans supports it.
“I don’t think (public employees) should be able to strike. They are there to provide a service. If they want to find another job, they can find another job,” Jordan said.
Jordan told the Gazette he respects the work of public employees. His mother is a teacher, his father is a former teacher, and his wife is a former teacher’s aide. But, the state’s economic needs come first, he said.
Jordan also said binding arbitration has resulted in some “goofy” decisions. He cited an example in Wayne County, where the government cut $2.5 million to deal with a budget deficit, but the arbitrator awarded police officers 3 percent raises. The county had to lay off 14 employees, he said.
“I think there’s some people that have an interest in protecting the status quo, and they’re being very vocal about it,” Jordan said. “I’ve got to do what’s best for the State of Ohio, and what’s best for our long term economic health.”
State Rep. Andrew Brenner (R-Powell) supports collective bargaining reform and seems likely to cast a vote in favor of the bill, although he said what the House ends up passing could look different from what the Senate approved. He rejects that weakening public employees is an attack on the middle class, as unions have alleged.
“I think people who are voters, and who are middle-class and pay taxes, want to see reform because they want more parity between the private and public sector,” Brenner said.
The bill has the support of his Delaware County constituents, he said.
“I just got off the phone with someone who said he wouldn’t vote for me if I didn’t support collective bargaining reform. Other than the public sector unions — I think the private sector clearly wants this,” Brenner said.
Public employees have said Republicans are just settling political scores against the unions, which traditionally support Democrats.
Eileen Sheppard, co-president of the Buckeye Valley Teacher Association, said Republicans are making teachers and other public employees into scapegoats for the state’s financial ills.
“The biggest thing I would like people to realize is that this bill will not balance the budget,” Sheppard said. “It’s not going to save our economy. In fact, I think it will hurt our economy.”
Sheppard, a science teacher at Buckeye Valley West Elementary, has twice traveled to Columbus to protest the bill and to view public discussion. Senate Bill 5 will weaken public education and by extension, make Ohio a less desirable place to live, she said.
The bill would eliminate tenure status, which currently protects teachers with a certain number of years of experience, and take away teachers’ rights to negotiate work conditions such as classroom size.
The bill proposes to give “merit raises” to teachers, rather than the current system in which teachers get raises based on longevity.
Sheppard doesn’t know how the state will measure teacher performance. If it’s done through standardized tests, schools would have to expand testing — currently, non high school students are only tested on science — the subject she teaches — in fifth and eighth grade.
“If you’re going to have merit pay based on these tests, then you’re going to have to test every kid on every subject in every grade level, and that’s going to be ridiculously expensive to do,” Sheppard said.
BV teachers have never gone on strike to her knowledge, but taking that right away would eliminate teachers’ final recourse in negotiations.
If negotiations between the school board and teachers break down? The school board can pick its own “last and best” offer, she said.
“The school board just gets to say ‘we like ours better,’ and that’s the final say. And obviously we wouldn’t be able to strike. So we would have to take it or leave it,” Sheppard said.
Shawn Sneed, the senior representative of the Delaware patrol officers union, said SB5’s supporters have a revisionist view of how collective bargaining works.
“I think a lot of people are forgetting that these were negotiations. And it seems to me when times were good, and everyone was flush with cash, agreeing to certain proposals was OK. But now that we’re on hard times, all of a sudden it’s ‘we forced their hand into doing things,’” Sneed said.
Like Sheppard, Sneed is also concerned with how governments will calculate merit pay, and the idea that governments will have the final say in the bargaining process.
Does he see any previous Kasich supporters among the police union revoking their support of Kasich?
“I haven’t discussed the political aspects with any of my members, but I’m sure a few of them will change their minds,” Sneed said.
Some local governments in Central Ohio, which happen to be controlled by Democrats, have passed public resolutions in support of public union rights. That includes Franklin County commissioners.
However, there’s no indication the all-Republican Delaware County board of commissioners will choose to enter the fray in support. All three commissioners have direct ties to public education; Commissioners Ken O’Brien and Tommy Thompson are former public school teachers, and Commissioner Dennis Stapleton’s wife, Katie, is a first-grade teacher in Westerville.
And all three have what might be described as nuanced views on the bill.
“It’s not as simple as a yes or no,” said O’Brien, who took a leave of absence from his job as a special education teacher with Worthington City Schools to become a county commissioner in 2009. O’Brien is also a former president of his teacher’s union. He declined to be interviewed for this article unless the Gazette would print the entirety of his remarks verbatim, a condition which the Gazette declined due to space constraints.
Stapleton said the bill looks good “on paper,” and will likely save local governments money. He said a reform of public retirement packages — a separate set of proposed legislation — is necessary to more closely align them with those of the private sector, and that making public employees contribute more toward their health care costs is needed.
But, it’s difficult to tell whether the proposals in SB5 will turn out to be a good thing in their totality, Stapleton said. He has discussed the proposal with his wife, who is concerned that younger teachers who are less financially secure will be more impacted.
“(Public employees) are taxpayers too, and I think we lose sight of that. I do believe in the end — as the administration believes — that if the procedures are put in place, that it will reduce the burden to taxpayers. Is the end result a good one? On that, I can’t give you a definite answer. I think that’s where time will tell,” Stapleton said.
Thompson, who retired as a principal in 1998 after starting his career in education as a teacher, said he didn’t know enough about the issue to speak at length. But, he said, both unions and government administrations have valid points.
“I think unions have fulfilled a purpose — they took us away from the sweatshop concept and sweatshop ideas. But I’ve been out of the union so long I don’t know the ins and outs anymore. I think its something they have to review, look at it what is best … and decide what’s going to help us ease this economic downfall that we’ve been in,” Thompson said.